An eighteen-year-old driver with a seventeen-year-old passenger crashed into a tree, killing the passenger. On Facebook, the driver had a nickname, which here I will revise to “Wing Boy.” The fatal accident was reported in the online version of a regional newspaper. At the end of the article was a space for “Reader Comments.” The first post was: “I would like to nominate Wing Boy for loser of the year. Who’s with me?” Later comments touched on Wing Boy’s employment history, past girl friends, and ethnicity. Several people tried to intervene with messages such as, “These comments are in violation of anything decent or human,” but these efforts to shut down the verbal brawl only increased the number, insensitivity, and irrelevance of the comments.
A teen died while driving a BMW. One reader posted a comment about “how irresponsible it is for parents to entrust a teen with a BMW,” because doing so “is just asking for trouble.” Dozens chimed in to agree.
Two teens, brother and sister, died in a collision with a truck. The online Reader Comments included: “It is hard to sympathize with these parents. Robby [fictitious name] had his license suspended last year. His parents should stop trying to act cool.” This article drew 357 comments, most of them indictments of the teen driver who died and his now-childless parents.
One of the newsfeeds I get every so often is from the Safe Roads Coalition, www.saferoads4teens.org, which collects news articles from across the country on teen driver fatalities. As Reader Comments following online news articles have become common, a clear pattern has emerged within the articles on teen driver fatailites: many readers are oblivious to the human pain that is at the heart of the article, and use the Comment spaces to condemn the driver and/or the parents, which sets off a furious debate among the other commenters about human decency. A few misguided folks think that the Reader Comment space is the place to express their condolences to the family (“My heart goes out…”).
I have now seen enough of these to draw some firm conclusions: First, nothing good comes of Reader Comment sections on fatal or serious teen driver crashes. The comments are not cautionary tales that will make safer teen drivers or more informed parents. The Comment sections only invite people who don’t know and don’t care to post truly insensitive and egregious messages, or for teens to use the forum for revenge, bullying, and other statements typical of those who have very little perspective. These comments certainly have nothing to with the journalistic mantra of “the readers right to know,” and they are certainly not the place for the community to send condolences to the families involved. It is also apparent that the “Report any abuse” feature of Comment spaces is useless.
My recommendation: if, God forbid, there is a fatal or serious crash in your community and an online news article appears, as quickly as possible, call the paper’s staff and ask them not to allow online Reader Comments, or to retract a Comment space if already posted. Explain to them what happens with such spaces. Send them a link to this post. If a lower-level employee rebuffs your request with “It’s our policy” or “We can’t make exceptions, ” ask to speak to the editor, tell him or her that this is a matter of basic human decency. If the paper refuses, then post your own comment making it clear that in a tragic teen driver situation, denigrating comments about those who have died or been injured, or about their parents are way, way out of bounds.